Mongol NAADAM celebration to experience centuries old history.
Updated: Nov 18, 2022
This centuries-old tradition dates back to the Xiongnu period that has been mentioned in Chinese sources. In the summer months, the Xiongnu tested their speed, strength, and skill with fast horses, wrestling, and archery. Also, wrestling, archery and horse racing – the three main skills that Chinggis Khaan considered important for any Mongol warrior – are today the country’s biggest celebration that compared like Olympic game for Mongolians.
Eriin Gurwan Naadam commonly known as Naadam is the festival of national pride and sophisticated and eloquent expression of nomadic culture, and honored celebration of a national independence, outstanding combination of arts and sports. Mongolian Naadam is inseparably connected to the nomadic civilization of the Mongols, who have long practiced pastoralism on Central Asia’s vast steppe. Oral traditions, performing arts, national cuisine, craftsmanship, and cultural forms such as long song, Khöömei- throat singing, traditional dance and Morin khuur horse head fiddle also feature during Naadam.
The three types of sports are directly linked with the lifestyles and living conditions of the Mongols and their transmission is traditionally undertaken through home-schooling by family members, although formalized training regimens have recently developed for wrestling and archery. The rituals and customs of Naadam also accentuate respect for nature and the environment.
Historically, the three men's festivals became national holidays in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. Since the proclamation of the Great Mongol Empire in 1206 and the enthronement of Temuujing as Genghis Khan, the tradition of holding three men's sports, established as the State Ceremony Naadam.
Mongolians trace the origins of the festival back to the needs of war, defence and hunting. In Old Mongolia, the festivals celebrated the prowess of the male and were linked to religious rites intended to both celebrate and attract wealth, health and prosperity from the gods of nature and from ancestors. After the advent of Buddhism in Mongolia, monasteries held four or five festivals each year at ritual sites around the country, which occasionally were huge affairs, drawing people from many different provinces. These festivals coincided with sacrificial offerings made in autumn to local spirits or Buddhist gods, to initiate the next stage of the annual cycle. They began with ritual offerings of sheep and dairy products to the gods followed by traditional sports and closed with a distribution of food to the poor. At the beginning of the twentieth century in Urga (now Ulaanbaatar) there were spectacular festivals lasting up to 2 weeks. These festivals were scheduled to coincide with the oncoming of autumn and contained both Buddhist ceremonies as well as the Three man’s traditional sports. Wrestling bouts were frequently held between representatives of church and state and were attended by the Bogd Khan (living Buddha), the religious and secular leader.
After 1921, the Naadam festival became an official celebration of the National Revolution’s victory. On 11 June 1921 the revolutionaries mounted a successful attack on Urga, the capital city, and expelled the Chinese military garrison. So the first Nadaam of the ‘new Mongolia’ was celebrated on the first anniversary of the state’s foundation, 11 July 1922, on the south bank of the River Tuul – a spot reportedly chosen by a great Mongol hero, Sükhbaatar. During the communist regime, Nadaam was secularized and organized by the local state controlled cooperatives. The differences between the festival during the socialist period and those preceding it were substantial. For example: In Old Mongolia, a festival lasted until all the competitions had been won; in the socialist period, it was limited to two days. Attendance became compulsory. Mongols had to be seen supporting the [communist] flag or forfeit their wages.
During the socialist time, in 1925, the government issued a decree to celebrate the People’s Naadam on July 11 every year. After that, in 1946, Kh. Choibalsan suggested Stalin organize Naadam, not as a way to celebrate Mongolian nationality but to celebrate the Independence Day of 1921. Stalin gave permission since then Naadam has marked the historic event of Mongolia's official recognition of independence and paid great attention to organizing the Naadam at the highest level that year and thrived ever since.
However, in 1996, the 790th anniversary of the founding of the Great Mongolian Empire was celebrated with the Naadam festival, which enriched the history of the Naadam. Since then, the content of this Mongolian national festival has not changed much for centuries. Thus, Naadam inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. in 2010.
If you are interested in visiting at Naadam festival here are the hints that might help you.
When and where to see Naadam?
The Festival of the Three Manly Sports is celebrated the largest, in the capital Ulaanbaatar, takes place from the 11th to 13th of July each year in the national sports stadium. Colorful opening ceremony is must see highlight in the capital city but there is a lot of traffic and crowd in the city. Separate provincial and regional Naadam are take place across the country vary but usually from July-August depending on summer and pasture. It gives authentic experiences and you can get much closer to the happenings.
Where to buy the ticket?
If you are going individually, it is not easy to find the ticket. If you are going through tour operator, they will arrange that for you. It cost about 25USD. The ticket covers opening ceremony, wrestling, and the closing ceremony inside of the stadium.
At the Sukhbaatar square the Nine White Banners took place at the Sukhbaatar Square and carry them to stadium for the opening ceremony, is about 3km. Several cultural events are held, ranging from the costume parade on the 10th concerts, throat singing contests to the final firework at the end of the Naadam Festival. The archery, ankle bone games, parade, and horse races all for free just a few steps away from stadium.
The horse racing takes place at Hui Doolon Khutag. It is 40km west of Ulaanbaatar. This site is covered with camps of Mongolian horse trainers and young jockeys and you’ll also find plenty of kids’ games and stalls selling all kind of stuff.
Where to stay during the Naadam?
If you’re able to spend a bit more, Shangri-La Hotel, Best western hotel international standard 5 star hotel, Bayangol hotel and Ulaanbaatar hotel are Mongolian standard 5 star hotel, are located at the very heart of town. If you are on a budget, motels and homestays are available.
In the countryside if you are with tour operator, they will arrange everything for you, otherwise in this season almost everything is fully booked and not easy to find place.
To book: Terelj Hills Lodge, Lake Forest lodge, Dream Gobi lodge
What can you see during Naadam?
The modern day festival begins with a colourful opening ceremony, followed 2 days of horse racing, archery and wrestling competitions with a third day generally reserved for eating, drinking and relaxing. Despite still being known as the three manly sports, women now participate in all but the wrestling category. It is compared as an Olympic game of Mongols.
What to know before you come to the Naadam?
Only men are allowed to participate wrestling competition. They wear special clothing such as a traditional hat and up toe boots, two-piece costumes consisting of a tight shoulder vest (zodog) and shorts (shuudag). The wrestling uniform is strong, light and elegant. Mongolian wrestlers compete regardless of age or weight. A total of 512 or 1024 wrestlers meet in a single-elimination tournament that lasts nine or ten rounds and it is an untimed competition in which wrestlers lose if they touch the ground with any part of their body other than their feet or hands. When picking pairs, the wrestler with the greatest fame has the privilege to choose his opponent.
Each wrestler has an "wrestler’s second" called a zasuul. The zasuul sings a song of praise for the winning wrestler after rounds 3, 5, and 7. Winners of the 7th or 8th stage (depending on whether the competition features 512 or 1024 wrestlers) earn the title of zaan, "elephant". The winner of the 9th or 10th stage is called arslan, "lion". In the final competition, all the "zasuuls" drop in the wake of each wrestler as they take steps toward each other. Two-time arslans are called the titans / giants, or avraga. In 2011, 6002 wrestlers competed in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, and were registered in the Guinness Book of World Records.
The horse trainer chooses the fastest and best chariot from the herd and catches it almost a month before the start of the festival. There are about 2,400 six-different ages racehorses compete in the 30-kilometer race. Horses are raced by age. Mongolian horse racing as featured in Naadam is a cross-country event, with races 15–30 km long. The length of each race is determined by age class. For example, two-year-old horses race for 16 km (10 mi) and seven-year-olds for 27 km (17 mi). Up to 1000 horses from any part of Mongolia can be chosen to participate. Race horses are fed a special diet. Children from 5 to 13 are chosen as jockeys and train in the months preceding the races. While jockeys are an important component, the main purpose of the races is to test the skill of the horses.
Before the races begin, the audience sings traditional songs and the jockeys sing a song called Gingo-a mantra of God of horse. Prizes are awarded to horses and jockeys. The top five horses in each class earn the title of airgiyn tav and the top three are given gold, silver, and bronze medals. The winning jockey is praised with the title of tumny ekh or leader of ten thousand. The horse that finishes last in the Daaga race (two-year-old horses race) is called bayan khodood (meaning "full stomach"). A song is sung to the bayan khodood wishing him luck to be next year's winner.
Young Mongolian boys and girls aged 7-12 compete in this ancient tradition – racing horses at top speed on the country’s vast steppes. These cross-country horse races are some of the longest in the world.
During the primitive culture bows and arrows were used as hunting rifles and tools. Later it became a military weapon and a sports tool. In this competition both men and women may participate. It is played by teams of ten. Each archer is given four arrows; the team must hit 33 "surs". Men shoot their arrows from 75 meters away while women shoot theirs from 65 meters away. Traditionally the archers wear their national clothing (Deel) during the competition. All the archers wear leather bracers up to the elbow on their outstretched arm, so that the deel’s cuff does not interfere with shooting.
Mongolian archery is unique for having dozens of surs as targets. Each sur is a small woven or wooden cylinder. They are placed on top of each other forming a wall three-high, which is approximately 8 inches high by 5 feet wide. Knocking a sur out of the wall with an arrow counts as a hit, though knocking a sur out of the centre will bring a competitor more points. When the archer hits the target, the judge says uuhai which means "hooray". After each hit, an official repairs the damaged wall and makes it ready for the next attempt. The winners of the contest are granted the titles of "national marksman" and "national markswoman".
However, whilst international visitors are attracted by the historical tradition and cultural uniqueness of the events that take place during Naadam, Mongolians are attracted by indigenous sports and the opportunity to spend time with friends and family and renew old acquaintances. Indeed, the experiences of international visitors may be quite different to that of Mongolians attending the festival, mediated as they are by tour operators and an assortment of special arrangements.
Bright colors are the order of this special days, and everyone wears the traditional outfit deel, during Naadam celebrations. It is a point of pride to wear bright colors and to be identified as a Mongol during this celebration of national pride. For the photographers this is the moment you cannot miss to capture many good shots.